by Catherine Kelly
Since 2003, Welburn, 59, is only the sixth design leader in General Motors’ history and heads what may be the largest design organization in the world. He leads 10 design centers in eight countries and manages 1,500 creative personalities. It’s not uncommon to find Welburn at a 6 a.m. design review or on a late night conference call – he is, after all, accommodating the world’s time zones. Design is around the clock work at a global company.
After the well-publicized news of General Motors’ financial woes, subsequent bailout and new stock offering, the company is maintaining its commitment to design. And Welburn is leading the effort.
Welburn, one of the highest-ranking Black automobile executives in the world, says much of his inspiration comes from his background. Welburn has loved automobiles since he was a child when his father, a car enthusiast himself, took him to an auto show in Philadelphia.
Welburn received his art training from Howard University in Washington, D.C. He attended the historically Black college in the early 1970s and said the “interdisciplinary” aspect of the experience prepared him for his current role that an art school could not have.
“Life began to open up quite a bit for me when I went to Howard University. The School of Fine Arts was a fascinating place [to be.] Art, music and drama … with students like Debbie Allen, Roberta Flack, Phylicia Rashad and Donny Hathaway,” said Welburn in an interview with the Black Press. He recalls hearing Flack play the piano when he was on his way to class and believes his time at Howard contributed to his creative development.
Welburn said studying sculpture at Howard made his drawings much “looser” and him a better designer. “Some of my favorite courses were the life drawing classes. Some of my first drawings were stiff and mechanical but by the time I left, my work had more emotion, passion … good car design has passion.”
Along with his everyday work, Welburn is still involved in the arts. General Motors hosts art shows at its design center and the auto executive has been known to paint in his private time. Welburn believes that creativity offers value and opportunity. While many parents may encourage their children to stay on more traditional career paths, he believes there is opportunity in creative fields such as design.
“Parents tend to direct [children] to fields they know they will be accepted in. … We have a building full of sculptors, artists who are working in the industry.”
Welburn, who regularly travels to Brazil, Columbia, Argentina and China, also says cultural fluency and diversity are important. Although it’s sometimes hard to try new things, adventure and being open-minded are important aspects of his work and have helped him in his current position.
“I took an assignment in Germany and I wondered if I would be accepted. I didn’t have a place to get my hair cut so that was something to deal with, but I love the cultural diversity … the challenges.”
Today, Welburn says he has friends around the world. “And I connect with them as strongly as I do with my old friends from Howard.”
Welburn says the future of General Motors is in global collaboration.
“It is the future,” says Welburn. “The development of the new Buick Lacrosse is a very good example of a collaboration of disciplines.”
The car, sold in the United States and China is the result of German engineers and U.S. and Chinese design teams. “It is far better than either team would have done separately.”
Catherine Kelly, publisher of The Michigan Citizen, is special contributing editor to the NNPA, the Black Press of America. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.